(This sermon was delivered on May 6, 2018 at Calvary Lutheran Church in Eureka, California. It provides a context for understanding the use of feminine pronouns, images and metaphors for God.)
Let’s Talk About God
In Genesis 1:27 we read:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
So humans are created in God’s image, both males and females. Not just the males, but also the females. That’s a big deal. Everyone in this room, every person on the planet, every person who has ever lived is created in God’s image.
Believing that all of us are created in God’s image raises one of those curious questions we Christians confront. You are more than familiar with the puzzle that is the Trinity. We wonder how can God be three persons in one? How can God be creator, redeemer, and advocate? For two thousand years we have grappled with that mystery and we have patched together some imagery that helps us accept, maybe not understand, but accept that mystery. The Trinity gives us experience accepting the illogical, the confounding, the mystical.
So it is with the belief God created all of us, women and men in her image. God also created all of the various skin colors in God’s image. God also created all of the many body types, short and tall, small and large in God’s image. God created all of the many and varied talents and abilities in God’s image. I ask those of you who know the Bible so much better than I do, where have you read that God created a person who is NOT in God’s image?
Now, you may ask “How can that be?” that this assortment of God’s children is made in God’s image? I will tell you: I don’t know how that can be. Like I noted earlier, understanding how all of us are made in God’s image is a mystery just like understanding the Triune God.
I do know that including all of God’s beloved children, which includes you and me, in our words and images of God gives a greater, broader, more inclusive image of God herself.
Many of you have noticed that in sermons, I often use feminine pronouns to refer to God. You know, she, her, hers. Some of you have questioned that usage, which is certainly reasonable. We all grew up with God the Father, the king of creation, the king of kings, male pronouns like he, him, and his. Consider the possibility of expanding God’s image beyond exclusively male images to include female images. This idea may be new to you or undeveloped to you, but it has advocates throughout Christendom, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
The ELCA has been working on a draft social statement on women and justice since 2009. In the intervening years, various task forces and committees have examined, researched, and assembled reports. The project is now in the draft statement stage, ready for members, congregations, and synods to comment. Next summer, the churchwide assembly will debate, amend, and vote on the statement. The social statement offers thoughts on a rather wide range of topics from violence against women to reproductive health care to economic justice, to the needs of immigrant women. It is clearly wide-ranging in its scope and its recommendations.
One section of the statement is pertinent to today’s sermon.
“The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commits to:
33) Use inclusive language for humankind and inclusive and expansive language for God. Encourage the use of language for God that expands rather than limits our understanding of God’s goodness and mystery. In particular, we support developing liturgies, hymns, prayers, and educational materials that broaden our language beyond primarily male images. This practice follows the Scriptures’ witness that God is wholly other and transcends human categories of sex and gender. Therefore, metaphors and images for God should be drawn from the lives of women and men, from nature, and from humanity in all its diversity to speak of the fullness and beauty of God.”1ELCA Task Force on Women and Justice: One in Christ, “Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice’
And now we are going to take that apart. Please note that nothing in the statement suggests that we eliminate male images or metaphors. It would be just as exclusive to only use female images as it is to use only male images.
Let’s go back to the statement “God is wholly other and transcends human categories of sex and gender.” Does anyone really think that God has a physical body, is a human? Does anyone really think that God has male or female hormones or body parts? Now we know that God the Son has human body parts—there were thousands of witnesses to that human body. We talk about that human body during communion. It is part of the significance of Jesus’ physical experience with us. Speaking about the Triune God, however, we believe that God is more than we can imagine and completely other than we can imagine. Because God is so far beyond our imaginations, we use metaphors to describe her. So father, friend, rock, hen, eagle, and vine are all used in the bible. There are more, but you get the idea.
The bible also uses feminine metaphors and names for God. Have you ever heard of El Shaddai? El Shaddai is generally translated as Almighty God, but El Shaddai is more appropriately translated as God with Breasts. Think about it. God with breasts. That is definitely a female image. And we all know that there are several passages, especially in the Old Testament that use feminine metaphors and images for God.
Here are just a few:
Psalm 131:2 talks about God as mother:
“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”
Psalm 22:9 portrays God as a midwife:
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.”
Isaiah 46:3-4, again as a mother:
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb, even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”
Deuteronomy 32:18, again as a mother:
“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
Isaiah 42:14 as a woman in labor:
“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
In other passages, God makes clothing and weaves cloth, and does other traditionally and culturally feminine tasks. El Shaddai, Mother, midwife, are all feminine images, they call us to see the feminine divine that God offers us.
The bible provides us with both female and male images and metaphors for God. These metaphors and images expand our understanding of God and that is fundamental to approaching God in all of God’s wonder and love and creativity. By using a combination of masculine and feminine pronouns, we begin to add more dimension to the ways we think about, imagine, and praise God.
- ELCA Task Force on Women and Justice: One in Christ, “Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice’ (ELCA: Chicago, 2017), 9. ↩